Otherworldly Shores

I have found myself pondering what even to call the “spirit world.” “Spirit world” itself, though perhaps a nice catch-all term, feels always unsatisfying to me. Of course, this isn’t a conundrum unique to me. Every system seems to struggle—or, simply, default to a preferred term—and that term winds up encapsulating a good measure of the worldview of that system: astral plane (or the astral), etheric plane (or the etheric), the nous/noetic/etc., otherworld, otherworlds, the Unconscious, the Realm, the Kingdom, the Depths, the Dream, the Dreaming, Mundus Imaginalis, Higher/Middle/Lower Worlds, any of the various Sephiroth (but most folks focus on Yesod, and rarely Malkuth beyond associating it with the material world), and so forth and so on. I have often wondered how to refer to There, have often adopted a scattershot approach, or have chosen to go with the, to me, inadequate “spirit world.” For a long while, I used Otherworlds, and I still have a fondness for it.

This post then will see me ponder the limitations and issues with naming—or at least referring to—There. Even something like There strikes me as inadequate, misleading. Accordingly, although this post involves considerations of cosmology, its emphasis remains primarily discursive. My approach is also far more exploratory and reflective rather than descriptive or prescriptive. I’m not going to solve this question here by any means.

Accordingly, because this topic focuses so much on word choice and language, I use a ton of scare quotes and italics.

Systemizing and Universalizing

In considering this topic, I want to focus on the descriptive usefulness of terms while trying to avoid universalizing or asserting “universal principles” about the spirit world. I would argue that universalizing cosmology and terminology winds up constraining my ability to experience the spirit world, projecting a limited conscious logical framework onto something that defies that kind of rationality. Indeed, the spirit world defies rationality in the sense that it defies our ability to measure or reckon its depth, scope, mutability, mercuriality, etc. etc.[1] To universalize about this topic is to, as the saying goes, mistake maps for their territories. The spirit world will always include that which I cannot account for in a rational model. I can offer comparisons and anecdotes, of course, but I cannot offer universalized systems, as much as I might consciously like one. And to do so would include constraining myself to my own conscious persona.

In general, I adopt an ecosystemic and inclusive approach: hard divisions are less common than folks probably imagine, and although there are an indefinite number of “places” in the spirit world, they and it wind up being far more porous and interconnected, broadly speaking. Or, perhaps more accurately, our ability/means to perceive them rely upon modalities[2] that are themselves prone to a kind of porousness. Indeed, the spirit world’s locales seem far more associative than necessarily hierarchical. That is, the “places” in the spirit “world” connect together far more like memories and words or images do than in some kind of rational, logical matrix. If humans have managed to discover or imagine numerical, reasoned connections within spiritual hierarchies, then I would hazard that they constrained their perceptual faculties to the linguistic or symbolic associations of numbers rather than finding the underlying numerological “truth” of the entire spirit world. That is, numbers represent a kind of order and reason, and many practitioners have gone looking for numerological structure in the spirit world, and, indeed, they found it. But, well, you can find anything within the spirit world.

Fans of the Kircher Tree of Life and similarly hierarchical systems would probably accuse me of being fixated or stuck in Yesod or “enthralled by maya” (as, indeed, someone once accused me). In response, I would say that one could just as easily say that the “higher,” more “noetic,” rational, more “rarefied” “levels” are just a particular sequence of locales found within Yesod—that is, Yesod contains the idea and reality of those kinds of realms and modes of being/thinking/consciousness. I would just question why the one is “lower” within the system rather than “containing” the other spheres? After all, if the spirit world includes anything that we might not choose to include in the “normal” “human” “world,” then any approach to talking about the spirit world needs to acknowledge its sheer scope: its scopes of size, complexity, interrelation, potentiality/contents, and so on.

Dualisms and Dimensionality

Westerners often presume that their dualistic perception of the world is itself cosmologically axiomatic: that is, because westerners perceive the universe in terms of physical and non-physical, matter and mind/spirit/consciousness, they presume that the cosmos is structured in the same way rather than that view being an artifact of how we’ve been trained to perceive the cosmos. In contrast, we do have entire mythologies and bodies of knowledge that emphasize the (different) physicality of There and the beings that dwell There, whether they are faeries, jinn, gods, or other kinds of spirits. Just because many practitioners prefer to use consciousness effects to access the spirit world—including perceiving and acting within or through the spirit world through “projection” and “dreams” and “trances”—that does not mean that just because humans often use such modalities to access the spirit world that the spirit world is “non-physical.” It may not be “physical” to us under typical, “sane” “ego” consciousness conditions, but I would argue that points more to our own “multi-dimensional” and spiritual nature, and we might ask instead how many “bodies” we have. I would at that point frame trance work as shifting our attention to either other modalities—other ways of perceiving the cosmos (Here and There)—or to our myriad of other bodies.

Of course, many folks wind up going with an extradimensional hypothesis: the spirit world is another dimension, next to or parallel with our normal experience of life on Earth. There is probably something to this conjecture: we have far too many stories of portals, of crossings, of abductions, of going underhill, and so on. However, I have grown increasingly fond of the idea that it’s more that we’re on the skin of a larger dimensional structure. It’s not that it’s another “dimension” in the sense that we commonly see in science fiction and fantasy, but that we have—not a “higher,” I would say—a “deeper” dimension(s) just at hand. The imaginal, linguistic, associative nature of that deeper reality is why I have a fondness for Unconscious, Dreaming, and related terms. Many spirits—and often including spirits of the dead, I would hazard, but also us on occasion—are “deeper” “dimensional” beings, but our awareness and modes of action are typically constrained to the skin of the world.[3]

Defining and Naming

When I think about the various names for There, I can see how those names need to have their terms defined. The “astral plane” is a relic of nineteenth century occultism, but “astral” points to a higher, stellar height while “plane” participates in the kind of alternate (if parallel) dimensionality I glance at above. “Etheric” is often used as an alternative to “astral,” and is itself another relic of Enlightenment and nineteenth century science, as an energetic substance or as an astral (celestial) substance or media for energy to flow through, or as a fancy word for “non-physical.”

“Otherworld” and “Otherworlds” and even “spirit world” require us to define “world”: do we mean the cosmos, or the planet, or what. I had used Otherworlds for quite some time because the various “places” in the spirit world can be as expansive and diverse as our human world, as planets. How can we refer to those “places”? Are they “worlds” or “domains” or “realms” or “planes” or “mansions” or what? Asgard is one of the Nine “Worlds” within that cosmology, but when I acknowledge an indefinite number of “worlds,” can I call Asgard a “world” at that point? Furthermore, while “Other” can point to that deeper or other-side-of-the-mirror experience of the spirit world, it still divorces There from Here. And “spirit world” requires a far more robust examination of what “spirit” even means. I have encountered far too many spirits of the air and spirits of the earth who move through or are wind and earth and more—well, I cannot assume any longer that “spirit” has the presumed “incorporeal” qualities fantasy and sci-fi had convinced me of. Of course, spirit comes from the same word as breath, and I’ve seen arguments that ancient cultures did not distinguish these senses of the word in the way we do.

Similar questions of definition afflict the other names I listed at the beginning of this post. In response, one approach I have taken is to come up with my own names. I’ve done this with whatever “energy” is in a magical context, including different “flavors” of it. I did this because I had an experience of “energy,” and I wanted to get some kind of conscious grasp on it, but I wanted to avoid using an existing term (I used to really like “chi” for this sorta thing) that carried with it existing cultural or ideological baggage that I lacked context for or which didn’t really connect with my experience. I have done this with the spirit world—or at least ways of experiencing the spirit world and “places” within it. And indeed, in a way, I’m just engaged in toponymy or trying to intuit or discover the name (and sometimes glyph or character) for a locale within the spirit world.

Of course, the problem from a discursive perspective is that using my little UPG names don’t help me communicate with readers. On occasion, with certain persons, when I share these names or their descriptions with them, they will respond with a sudden sense of familiarity to the name or what it bespeaks to them. But that is honestly the exception, and it requires an intuitive talent on the other person’s part.

Ultimately, I don’t have a solution that I feel satisfied with. I think I tend to go with “spirit world” these days, or “the Realm” with some folks—I’ve grown a bit fond of “Kingdom,” especially in what’s a different take from the gospels:

nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.” (Luke 17:21, NIV)

Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you. (Luke 17:21, KJV)

and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 3:2, NIV)

And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. (Matthew 3:2, KJV)

The “Kingdom” is “at hand,” “has come near,” “is in your midst,” “is within you.” I see this thought pointing less to some future point where some Christian eschatological event occurs and more to how the enchanted, spiritual, sacred, holy world is already all about us, is even inside us (or we are within and containing it). Above and below, within and without, the Dream, the Kingdom, the Mundus Imaginalis, the Unconscious, the Three Worlds—we’re always moving through them—maybe not consciously, but certainly we can be.

Featured Image: Imagine_Images | Pixabay

[1] The etymologies of rational and ratio get at this accounting and measuring association, and it is easy to see how reason and rationality connect with the ability to measure and assess situations and things.

[2] Modality refers to a “faculty or sense” or some other “sensory perception.”

[3] I can squint at Henri Corbin’s summarization of different perspectives on Mount Qaf and what Corbin terms the mundus imaginalis and see something like this seemingly-impossible inverted sphere, where our normal reality is the surface of a structure, but the interior itself is infinite (or nigh infinite).

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